Archive for Thursday, July 26, 2007

Danger zone

July 26, 2007

Spring brings the sounds of baseball. The crisp 'pop' of a fastball hitting the catcher's mitt, the lazy murmur of the crowd and the sharp 'ping' of the ball rocketing off of the bat. But in some regions, one of these noises could be missing by the time next season rolls around.

Earlier this year, the New York City Council voted to enact a ban on the use of non-wood bats in all high school baseball games within city limits. The law goes into effect Sept. 1.

In Pennsylvania, state legislators have proposed a similar bill but have not yet made significant steps toward banning non-wood bats.

The push to outlaw and restrict alloy and metal bats began in the 1990s when baseball coaches and leagues took note of the growing number of injuries attributed to batted balls. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, 17 players were killed as a result of injuries sustained by batted balls from 1991 to 2001. Eight of these incidents were the result of balls hit by non-wood bats, and only two lethal injuries were attributed to wood bats. In the other seven cases, the type of bat was not specified.

"In the early '90s we noticed a rise in injuries to pitchers," said Lance Van Auken, Little League Baseball spokesman. "We've taken steps and seen a drastic decrease in injuries."

Little League Baseball stopped short of banning non-wood bats but came to an agreement with manufacturers that limited the allowed "Bat Performance Factor," meaning non-wood bats are restricted to performing at the level of a very good wood bat. Van Auken said the organization also restricted the allowable hardness of its baseballs in order to decrease velocity off of the bat.

According to Little League Baseball's injury statistics, overall injuries to pitchers have fallen from a high of 145 in 1992 to 88 in 2005. Despite the downturn in overall injuries, some experts say players should be encouraged to wear protective gear when pitching or playing in the field.

But the rules and restrictions put in place by Little League Baseball only govern teams affiliated with Little League Baseball. This does not include Kansas high school baseball teams. Kansas high schools are governed by the KSHSAA, which is part of a national federation of high school athletics.

"We don't have any specific rules in place restricting bats," said Rick Bowden, KSHSAA administrator. "Our policy would be the same as with any equipment issue: if the national federation would come up with a ban we would go along with it."

The KSHSAA does not see any need for a change as far as bats are concerned.

"To our knowledge we haven't had any incidents in which kids have been hit by a ball from an alloy bat that brought any sort of controversy," Bowden said.

Former Eudora baseball coach Dirk Kinney, who has coached in a wood bat league this summer, said a change in the association's policy would benefit Kansas high school players.

"Wood teaches kids to play the game the right way," Kinney said. "You have to bunt more, hit and run more, you have to play more small ball. It shows the kids the true all-around skills of the game."

Kinney said non-wood bats are not only dangerous to pitchers and fielders but could also hinder the development of hitters. Manufacturers tout the bats' capability to generate power and market the performance boost offered by bats with names like "Catalyst" and "Samurai".

Kinney said the larger sweet spots of non-wood bats allow hitters to turn poor swings into hits and could hamper players who make the jump to professional baseball, where only wood bats are allowed.

Despite the possibility of injury or depletion of skills, officials in Kansas and in Little League Baseball have not taken steps toward the outright outlawing of non-wood bats. Kinney said the leagues' ties to bat companies could be a factor in the organizations' hesitance to move toward wood bats.

In an official statement posted on www.littleleague.org, Little League Baseball acknowledges it receives royalties from the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association Youth Bat Licensing Program.

The issues non-wood bats present have just begun to make ripples within the ocean of amateur baseball. The waves have not yet reached Kansas, but Kinney's concerns show an undercurrent may be stirring.

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